The 1992 Belgian Grand Prix saw a bit of a changing of the guard.
Because a year earlier Ayrton Senna had won his fifth- and what would turn out to be his final- Belgian Grand Prix. On that same day a spotty German with a haircut ten years out of date made his debut at Spa, and impressed everyone- especially Flavio Briatore, who quickly snapped him up.
And a year on that now-less-spotty German, whose hair still needed sorting, won his first Formula One race. He did it at Spa, a track at which he would eventually eclipse Senna’s five victories at. However badly his comeback goes Schumacher will always be remembered as master of this place.
Having already scored 5 podiums in his first full season of F1 Schumacher arrived at Spa with a maiden race win starting to become a little overdue.
1992 was a season dominated by Nigel Mansell and the Williams team, their stunning FW14B proving superior to all challengers at most circuits. In qualifying for the Belgian race this superiority was driven home hard: Mansell took pole from Ayrton Senna by a margin of over 2 seconds, with Schumacher third and 2.5 seconds off the pole-sitter. Another Mansell win looked inevitable.
But Senna managed to pass Mansell through La Source, and led the Englishman through Eau Rouge. Schumacher meanwhile had dropped back to 5th, behind Riccardo Patrese (Williams) and Jean Alesi (Ferrari), but took 4th when he passed Alesi in to Les Combs.
Out front Mansell’s car simply had too much for Senna, and the Williams was back in the lead by the latter stages of lap 2. Patrese followed his teammate past Senna at the Bus Stop to make it a one-two for the Grove-based team, and that, presumably, was going to be that.
On an increasingly slippery track Mansell pitted for wets, followed a lap later by Schumacher and then Martin Brundle- who was having a superb run in the second Benetton- a lap after that. Patrese was in soon after, leaving Senna out front alone on the slick tyres.
Patrese exited the pits ahead of Mansell but the Englishman immediately surged past his teammate in to Eau Rouge, with Schumacher close behind them. But in front of all three was Jean Alesi, who’d pitted for wets before them. The Frenchman now found himself in a strong position.
But the rain wouldn’t make up its mind, leaving some parts of the track genuinely wet whilst some remained bone dry- classic Spa!
Mansell and Alesi then suffered a dramatic moment, as they collided at La Source. This forced Jean from the race and allowed Patrese past Mansell. With the rain seeming to ease and the men behind him running in to one another Senna’s decision to remain on track was now looking a good one. The Brazilian led from Patrese, Mansell, Schumacher and Brundle.
But Mansell soon re-passed his teammate and quickly destroyed Senna’s lead, hounding the McLaren by lap 11 and bringing Patrese and Schumacher with him. Nigel made an easy pass on Senna to retake the lead- and that, presumably, was going to be that. Again.
A lap later Patrese passed Senna, and on the lap following that Schumacher made a stunning pass on the Brazilian to take third. With Schumacher’s Benetton temmate Martin Brundle following him past Senna it was tunring in to a very miserable day for Spa’s most successful driver. His dries were no longer any use, and his gamble had failed.
Mansell was now able to open up a lead, but teammate Patrese was hounded by Schumacher, whose own teammate wouldn’t leave him alone. And this is how it stayed for some time, with Mansell out front, the chasing trio keeping each other company and the track drying all the time. A dry line had in fact appeared, and Thierry Boutsen, driving a Ligier, had switched to slicks. Interesting…
Okay, so it turned out badly, as Boutsen ended up in the wall and out of the race soon after. But it was clear that dries were now an option.
Then came something of a turning point: Schumacher ran wide and let Brundle slip through. This prompted Schumacher to immediately make a pit stop, switching to slicks in what would prove to be a crucial move. Because when Brundle stopped a few laps later he exited behind Schumacher, and with Mansell and Patrese still out on what were now the wrong tyres the race was coming towards Michael.
When Patrese stopped the Benetton plan had come to fruition- Schumacher was ahead of him on the road and up to second. Mansell remained out, losing precious time, and when he did stop the inevitable happened: Schumacher was now leading.
Williams had simply been too conservative, and it would cost them victory. Mansell did begin to catch Schumacher, but a misfire in his engine cost Nigel a shot at victory. Schumacher was home and relatively dry.
So 23 year-old Michael Schumacher took his first win in Formula One. Schumacher would go on to win at Spa five more times, eclipsing the total of Ayrton Senna. Two decades on he’s back at Spa, but with a ten-place grid penalty and after a poor year Michael can’t hope for anything like the elation of that day in 1992.
So with Schumacher past his best and four-time Spa winner Kimi Raikkonen gone perhaps the 2010 Belgian Grand Prix will see another driver pick up the mantle of Spa master.
Thanks to Badger’s Riccardo Monza for additional research and info on Spa 1992.